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Ann Rev Mar Sci. 2011;3:123-45.

Estuarine and coastal ocean carbon paradox: CO2 sinks or sites of terrestrial carbon incineration?

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Department of Marine Sciences, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia 30602, USA.


Estuaries are a major boundary in the land-ocean interaction zone where organic carbon (OC) and nutrients are being processed, resulting in a high water-to-air carbon dioxide (CO2) flux (approximately 0.25 Pg C y(-1)). The continental shelves, however, take up CO2 (approximately 0.25 Pg C y(-1)) from the atmosphere, accounting for approximately 17% of open ocean CO2 uptake (1.5 Pg Cy(-1)). It is demonstrated here that CO2 release in estuaries is largely supported by microbial decomposition of highly productive intertidal marsh biomass. It appears that riverine OC, however, would bypass the estuarine zone, because of short river-transit times, and contribute to carbon cycling in the ocean margins and interiors. Low-latitude ocean margins release CO2 because they receive two-thirds of the terrestrial OC. Because of recent CO2 increase in the atmosphere, CO2 releases from low latitudes have become weaker and CO2 uptake by mid- and high-latitude shelves has become stronger, thus leading to more dissolved inorganic carbon export to the ocean.

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